“When I was a kid, tamales were only a holiday thing,” says Roberto Hernandez, who was born in Mexico, raised in Texas and lives in Brooklyn now. “It was something special, a once-a-year treat. Now it seems like people get their treats all the time.”
Lucky us! Hernandez, manager of El Kucho restaurant in Bushwick, has hit on one of the very best reasons to live in his neighborhood: It’s an embarrassment of tamales — a Mexican dish made with masa (cornmeal dough), meat, cheese and/or vegetables cooked inside a corn husk — almost any day of the week, any time of the year.
Bushwick’s demographic makeup is certainly shifting (also see: most of Brooklyn), as the first waves of artists are increasingly joined by a more comfortable professional class. Rents go up, new businesses move in — it’s a familiar tale. And of course, these dynamics are squeezing out the neighborhood’s sizable Mexican population, hailing largely from the Puebla region.
All the more reason to seek out the places on this list — to make sure they don’t disappear. A couple of these tamale-makers have upscale aspirations, but most of them are modest lunch counters and takeout joints. In fact, our very favorite spot was nothing more than a woman with a small cart, peddling her wares outside a subway stop.
If you’re of Mexican descent, tamales may already anchor your holiday traditions. Their preparation is a treasured Christmas ritual, bringing generations of women together to chop, season, stir and scoop. Each family might have their own little tamale tweaks, and different regions have their own variants — such as serrano peppers, raisins, fish — but abundance is the name of the game.
Even if tamales were not part of your childhood, these corn-husk-wrapped delicacies can handily improve your grown-up holiday traditions. Just head to Bushwick and buy in bulk — you’ll be an instant party hit.
Note: As with any roundup like this, your favorite spot might not have made the list. Don’t be sore — this is your chance to try somewhere new! (Also your chance to e-mail the editors and let us know how we blew it big-time.)
Jefferson L stop, entrance at Jefferson and Wyckoff
Mon, Thu, Fri 5:30 a.m.–? (can sell out as early as 7:30)
There is a reason Delia Flores’s tamales often sell out long before the main crush of commuters hits the subway — they’re just that good. Served piping hot, for only $1 apiece (!), good luck not unwrapping the husk and digging in right there on the street. We’ve heard rumors of office suckups buying a dozen of these and sharing with their coworkers — but who wants to share? Flores’s tamales all come with chicken, in four varieties: green, red, jalapeño and mole. Sadly the mole was sold out by our 8 a.m. visit (see?) but the other three were spot on. Perfectly moist, aggressively flavorful, they’re perfection in every way. Best in show. Bonus: She also serves a mean cup of arroz con leche, that sweet, creamy rice pudding beverage that could improve your winter commute by at least 43 percent.
141 Wilson (at Willoughby)
Mon–Sat noon–10 p.m., Sun noon–9 p.m.
El Kucho is fairly new to the ’hood, clocking in at roughly the six- month mark. It’s cute and well-appointed, with lovely tilework, mirrors and wood accents. The food skews traditional-with-a-twist, with little touches elevating the menu. Take the tamales — prepared every day in the wee hours of morning, they are sold as part of a “Tamale Dinner”: two tamales and a side of rice and beans. The masa arrives sans corn husk, under a healthy amount of housemade mole. The chicken, rajas and other goodies are wrapped inside a masa blanket, rather than mixed into it. On top of the mole there’s a drizzle of crema, crumbled Mexican cheese, cilantro and avocado slices, giving the whole entrée an enchilada vibe. It’s a nice dinner.
330 Linden (at Myrtle), next to Sea Town Supermarket
Open 7 days, hours vary
You know you’ve struck tamale gold when you see a consistent flow of Mexican customers, even at off-meal times. This adorable little stand — which somehow still doesn’t have an Internet presence — is run by a couple from Veracruz. But their signature tamale, the Oaxaqueño, is not from their own homeland. The big difference is the wrapping — instead of the corn husk you’ve come to expect, these sizable tamales come wrapped in a banana leaf. The masa ends up smoother and softer than its ridged corn cousins, and it absorbs a savory hit of banana leaf flavor. For the record, we actually preferred the stand’s rajas tamale, a tasty blend of tomato, cheese and strips of pepper. But if you’ve never tried a Oaxacan tamale, this place is your shot. Bonus: On weekends they sell bright dulce (sweet) tamales, with the masa dyed bright pink. It’s a hit with the kiddies!
187 Suydam (at Wilson)
Sun–Wed 10 a.m.–10 p.m., Thu–Sat 24 hours
This place isn’t just one of the best tamale joints in Bushwick — it’s one of the best Mexican restaurants, period. The tacos excel, the tortas are superior… but let’s stay focused here. Namesake owner Sofia makes very traditional tamales, albeit without pork. (She started making only chicken and meatless because “that’s all anyone ordered.”) You can opt for the rojo or verde or try rajas (sliced poblano peppers) and cheese — they’re all solid. Sofia’s masa is dense and generously loaded with goodies. Bonus: Make sure to request some of their homemade hot sauce. It’ll singe your palate in the very best way.
887 Hart (at Irving)
Mon–Sun noon–11 p.m.
Run by a father-son duo that hails from — you guessed it — Puebla, Amaranto is the fanciest spot on this list. Chef Fermin Teco makes a couple of variants on the tamale, neither of which is like anything else here. Their signature huitlacoche tamale comes in a complex sauce that includes crab juice, smoked chipotle peppers, tomatoes and a bit of oregano. This unwrapped tamale is also served with mussels and chorizo — it’s quite decadent. Their other version is the tamale chiapaneco, loosely rooted in Chiapas. This one has olives and cheese in the masa, is cooked in a banana leaf (like Oaxaca) and is served over a bed of mushrooms, diced squash, tomatoes and spinach, with a squash and guajillo sauce poured over everything. It also comes with a handful of jumbo shrimp. These tamales may not be traditional, but here’s the thing: Both versions are delicious.
1513 Myrtle (at Irving)
Mon–Sun 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m.
La Mesita makes this list because of its pork tamales. Many of the others offer only chicken or veggie, and none of the ones with pork did it this good. La Mesita’s red sauce had a good kick to it, the pork was incredibly tender, the masa moist, and — this is a bit odd — the tamale had really good ingredient distribution. The pork was threaded throughout the masa, rather than clumped up in pockets here and there — it makes a difference! Bonus: La Mesita has an inexplicably elaborate juice bar.
Cholula Deli (1481 Myrtle, at Menahan) is rumored to have some of the best tamales in Brooklyn, but they’re only available on weekends. A woman dubbed the Tamale Lady (Note: There are other Tamale Ladies in the city) sets up sporadically at the Knickerbocker M train stop. Her tamales are legend, but spotting her is a tricky sport — ¡buena suerte! Oh, and RIP for the blood tamales at Fritzl’s Lunch Box (173 Irving, at Stockholm). They will be missed.
Yvette Cabrera provided translation assistance.